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Histories of pornography and obscenity attained academic respectability relatively recently. They attempt to show when the cultural categories of pornography and obscenity came into being, and most agree that they are coextensive with modernity (defined in various ways, but mainly as coincident with the rise of print between the late sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries). Historians see a distinction between sexual representation in early modern Europe, which was used primarily for satirical purposes, and modern pornography, in which sex is isolated from its social and cultural context and presented as a thing in itself. However, we should be critical of this stark distinction, as the modern legal–cultural category of the obscene is much wider than that of the pornographic, and contains many of the diverse elements of earlier cultures of erotic writing, bawdiness and pseudo-intellectualism. Modern historians could profit by using the techniques of early modern literary history, and by studying print forms.
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Keywords: culture; history; laws; obscenity; pornography; reading

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 August 2012

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